First published in The Times, Thursday March 21 2019
The National Theatre of Scotland’s motto of “theatre without walls” has led the company to stage its work in offbeat venues, from pubs and village halls to an airport lounge and a swimming pool.
The setting for this trio of new plays on the theme of technology is no less striking: a corner of a sprawling office complex that once housed a cigarette factory. While its façade is imposing, inside the building is much more anonymous. As we make our way from the reception area through the central courtyard and beyond, all signs of human life start to disappear.
The deserted, windowless area in which we eventually find ourselves is a fitting backdrop for the activities of the sinister “company” that links these three works. The airlessness of the setting is mirrored in Jen McGinley’s designs for the plays themselves. In each vignette the actors perform within compact, enclosed, near-empty spaces, starkly lit by Simon Wilkinson. We watch them through glass, like exhibits in some futuristic human zoo.
Pic: Eoin Carey
Concerns about surveillance, harvesting of data and over-reliance on technology are the threads running through Cora Bissett’s sharp, stylish production. In Morna Pearson’s Darklands, the liveliest and wittiest response to these themes, a young couple (played by Shyvonne Ahmmad and Nicholas Ralph), whose attempts to conceive naturally have come to naught, are offered a place on a pilot for a pioneering baby-making programme.
Pearson’s play, written in Doric, touches upon the controversy surrounding gene-edited babies. The element that truly disturbs, however, is the couple’s increasing dependency on the nameless corporation, whose representative, Moira (Maureen Beattie), is an intrusive, disembodied voice. At first merely persuasive, Moira’s role gradually shifts to one of manipulation and control.
Pic: Eoin Carey
The other two pieces, though plausible, are a touch too conceptually on the nose and at times can’t resist indulging in exposition. In Hannah Khalil’s Metaverse, a mother (Beattie again), attempts virtual communication with her daughter, a process that only makes her long for actual physical contact. In Vlad Butucea’s Glowstick, Beattie plays an elderly woman attempting to school her AI (Moyo Akandé) carer in human emotions and sensations.
Rather than aping the all-out speculative horror of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, these works are often surprisingly moving with a strong focus on flawed humanity and sympathetic performances from a versatile cast.
Interference runs to March 30. Nationaltheatrescotland.com